Kansas City’s leader in runs batted in, with 52 games remaining in the regular season, is second baseman Omar Infante. He has driven in 51.
The Royals acquired Infante during the offseason to stablize second base. They did not, I’m sure, think he would be leading the team in RBIs in early August.
But the Royals are not an easy team to figure. They are four games above .500 after finishing 86-76 last season. The improvement has been
marginal. Yet Kansas City just won two of three on the road at Oakland and the Athletics have the best record in baseball. The Royals are just 1 1/2 games behind Toronto for the second wild-card spot in the American League with a pack of teams in pursuit.
It promises to be a wild final eight weeks of the season. Can the Royals stay in the mix?
The offense tells you probably not. The defense shrieks a resounding “Yes!”
It’ll be about the pitching.
And it’ll likely be about the next three weeks, starting Tuesday night with a three-game road trip to Arizona. Following that, the San Francisco Giants visit Kauffman Stadium for a three-game set, after which Oakland comes to KC for four. Then it’s on the road to Minnesota, Colorado and Texas before a home makeup game with the New York Yankees.
That’s a tough stretch. The Royals aren’t playing any world-beaters on the road, but it is the road. Then again, Kansas City is 30-26 away from Kauffman this season and only .500 in the friendly confines.
Like I said, it’s not an easy team to figure.
Kansas City is banking on the young arms of Yordany Vetura and Danny Duffy. So far, so good, although Duffy has to be scratching his head at his record (5-10) and ERA (2.42). They don’t go together.
James Shields hasn’t pitched like an ace all the time, but he’s still the veteran. Still the guy. Still the likely starter if the Royals do get into a one-game wild-card situation. Although you have to wonder whether Ned Yost, the Royals’ manager, would be tempted to go with someone else. Nah, KC didn’t trade away Will Myers so that someone other than Shields could potentially pitch in the biggest game the team has played in almost 30 years.
The real strength of the Royals lies at the back end of the Royals bullpen, where Wade Davis and Greg Holland lurk like a pair of shady characters in “Breaking Bad.”
These two are nasty and they turn every Kansas City game into a seven-inning battle.
Davis normally pitches the eighth inning when called upon and Holland, as one of baseball’s best closers, handles the ninth. Combined, they have pitched 90 innings this season and allowed only 48 hits while striking out 137. They have allowed only 13 earned runs in those 90 innings, a ridiculous 1.30 ERA.
Davis has been a find at the back end of the bullpen after mostly futile results as a starter during his career. And Holland is the best Royals closer since Dan Quisenberry. That’s right. Move over, Jeff Montgomery and your franchise-best 304 career saves. You were never as filthy, or as dominant, as Holland.
The Royals, as we know, lack offensive firepower. Their most dangerous hitter is left fielder Alex Gordon, who ranks 33rd in the American League in OPS, 23rd in on-base percentage and 37th in slugging percentage. Mike Moustakas has a team-high 13 homers; Salvador Perez has 12. Nobody else has more than nine.
First baseman Eric Hosmer is out for a good, long while with an injury. That means Billy Butler, most comfortable in a DH role, has to play first base now. Nobody is comfortable when Butler is wearing a first baseman’s glove.
Lorenzo Cain’s is the team’s only .300 hitter. The Royals have a bunch of guys in their lineup who are OK, but lack oomph. Kansas City is last in the AL in homers with 62, 14 fewer than the team with the next fewest, Texas. So, despite ranking fifth in the league in hits, fourth in average and first in stolen bases, the Royals are 13th in runs.
And that’s where pitching becomes so vital. The Royals do not have Babe Ruth waiting in the wings, so they’re going to have to continue to scratch out wins and hold good-hitting opposing teams, like Oakland, below their season norms.
Get six or seven innings out of a starter, then turn it over to an electric bullpen, one that also includes Kelvin Herrera, who has allowed only one run in his past 19 appearances since June 4. In that span of 18.2 innings, Herrera has given up only 13 hits and struck out 17. He’s finding himself. Aaron Crow can still be effective, too. The bullpen and the defense are the Royals’ best chance to get to the postseason.
The offense is shaky. The starting pitching can be erratic still. It’s why Kansas City hasn’t been able to shake loose from hovering right around .500 for most of the season. Something good is usually followed closely by something bad.
But that something bad rarely happens at the back end of games when the Royals have the lead. Davis and Holland are slamming a lot of doors.